This article first appeared in the excellent Business Weekly but as I wrote it, it is reproduced here. While the emphasis of this note is on the East of England, I think the principle is the same in a lot of places. Too many people blame the wrong things for apparent lack of success in business. The main problem most businesses have is they don’t have enough people who talk to people.
It also gives me the perfect opportunity to share one of my favourite Simpsons videos.
What do we need to ensure the growth of world class technology companies in the East of England? writes Mark Littlewood of the Business Leaders Network.
When it comes to science and technology, the East of England is world class. The region’s entrepreneurs however are often accused of failure or lack of ambition when it comes to turning brilliant ideas into businesses.
Despite the huge commercial success of companies including ARM, Autonomy, JAGEX, Red Gate, Abcam and a handful of other elite businesses, the most common outcome for a technology company is early death or a trade sale. Why is this?
Many theories abound – we are too far from our core markets, we lack the investment, ‘we don’t do consumer well’, infrastructure is poor (all we need is another few billion of investment…), we lack product management, lack the sales people and a focus on sales, the ambition – are all theories that have been used to explain this relative underachievement to me in the past couple of months by well known figures in the industry.
Some of these answers may have an element of truth to them but doesn’t explain the whole story. When it comes to proximity to markets, it’s true that the major markets for technology businesses are in the Far East and US, but that hasn’t stopped Autonomy and ARM leading their fields. They operate as global businesses with fully functioning offices in all their core territories.
The investment thing is just silly. There is still huge interest in the region, particularly Cambridge, from the venture capital community. When my old business, Library House, did an analysis of venture investment across Europe a few years ago, it discovered more venture capital $ invested per head of the population in Cambridge than anywhere in the world outside Silicon Valley. This is probably still the case – despite what many fundraising companies think, there is money to be had, not just from angels and the usual UK venture suspects. US venture firms, are very active in the region, even if not immediately obvious. Andreessen Horowitz, Ignition Partners and Lightspeed ventures for example have recently invested in Cambridge without much fanfare.
“We don’t do consumer well”. True, some companies don’t, but there are some extraordinary counter-examples. JAGEX, founded in 2001 now has over 450 employees and its main property, Runescape, has over 156,000,000 (MILLION) registered users, with 10,000,000 playing the game at least once a month.
Infrastructure can be an issue – catching the 8.15 train to London in the morning is a horrible experience – but it is hardly a killer.
Indeed, if those same commuters worked in Cambridge, they would provide a source of skills that some in Cambridge claim just doesn’t exist. Really? What are all those people that commute to London doing? Are they unskilled?
Cambridge is compact and has a relatively small population. It is true that the infrastructure is limited, but most places with innovation and fast growing populations are. Do you really think Silicon Valley has the right infrastructure? Everyone in the Valley complains about the traffic. Granted, our political overlords seem to do their best to compound the infrastructure issue with schemes like the misguided bus seemingly representing a triumph of technology over market requirement thus reflecting one of the issues that does hold Cambridge back…
The Cambridge Council listens to the misguided bus sales pitch.
Perhaps the truth is a bit more mundane – and fortunately, a bit less expensive to solve than the infrastructure issue. As one of the region’s leading CEOs, one who has led a business to a $billion exit, told me recently, ‘Our main problem is we just don’t value customer facing people enough and therefore there aren’t enough of them. Our deep scientific expertise has served us well up to a point but that point is passed. To compete on a world stage, we need to work with people that can mould that expertise and relate it to the real world.’
His point was simple. The region is filled with brilliant technologists, but they need to work with brilliant customer-facing people – product management, sales and marketing people, finance people that understand the City – in order for a company to function. (Please note that I do not think that investors deliver revenue to companies, unlike one entrepreneur that I spoke to recently, but the investment community is a customer segment that needs careful management). Brilliant people on both sides of this equation need to find ways of understanding and appreciating the value that the other brings to the table.
Entrepreneurs are changing their attitudes to commerce and embracing the reality that a brilliant idea, or the world’s best technology, is simply not enough to build a great business. Some have met with extraordinary success. Simon Galbraith and Neil Davidson, the founders and joint CEOs of Red Gate Software for example, have built a 200 person business that attracts brilliant software talent but also invests significant effort in ensuring their staff can understand what their customers want and how this affects the business that they are in.
Helping founders and CEOs to think about customers, their pain, and how to engage with them – be they consumers, businesses or even investors – is the principle theme of this year’s BLN Growth Forum to be held on July 5 at the Hauser Forum, Cambridge. While Cambridge is the location, this is not your typical Cambridge event – this is a technology conference that will focus on the business aspects of technology and building high growth businesses. This is something that the region dearly needs.
As Hermann Hauser, an investor in over 200 hi-tech businesses over the years noted at last year’s event: “In my entire career, only one business I have invested in has failed because of technology. All the other failures were down to getting the people or the business model wrong, or forgetting to make sales!”
The BLN Growth Forum on July 5 features the leaders of some extraordinary businesses including – Tim Weller, CEO, Incisive Media – Warren East, CEO, ARM – Ariel Eckstein, MD EMEA, LinkedIn – Jonathan Milner, CEO, Abcam – Neil Gaydon, Pace plc – Martin Leuw, IRIS Software.